Scientists search for a universal coronavirus vaccine
The Covid-19 pandemic had barely begun when VBI Vaccines, a biopharmaceutical company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, initiated their search for a universal coronavirus vaccine.
It was March 2020, and while most pharmaceutical companies were scrambling to initiate vaccine programs which specifically targeted the SARS-CoV-2 virus, VBI’s executives were already keen to look at the broader picture.
Having observed the SARS and MERS coronavirus outbreaks over the last two decades, Jeff Baxter, CEO of VBI Vaccines, was aware that SARS-CoV-2 is unlikely to be the last coronavirus to move from an animal host into humans. “It's absolutely apparent that the future is to create a vaccine which gives more broad protection against not only pre-existing coronaviruses, but those that will potentially make the leap into humans in future,” says Baxter.
It was a prescient decision. Over the last two years, more biotechs and pharma companies have joined the search to find a vaccine which might be able to protect against all coronaviruses, along with dozens of academic research groups. Last September, the US National Institutes of Health dedicated $36 million specifically to pan-coronavirus vaccine research, while the global Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) has earmarked $200 million towards the effort.
Until October 2021, the very concept of whether it might be
theoretically possible to vaccinate against multiple coronaviruses remained an open question. But then a groundbreaking study renewed optimism.
The emergence of new variants of Covid-19 over the past year, particularly the highly mutated Omicron variant, has added greater impetus to find broader spectrum vaccines. But until October 2021, the very concept of whether it might be theoretically possible to vaccinate against multiple coronaviruses remained an open question. After all, scientists have spent decades trying to develop a similar vaccine for influenza with little success.
But then a groundbreaking study from renowned virologist Linfa Wang, who runs the emerging infectious diseases program at Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School, provided renewed optimism.
Wang found that eight SARS survivors who had been injected with the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine had neutralising antibodies in their blood against SARS, the Alpha, Beta and Delta variants of SARS-CoV-2, and five other coronaviruses which reside in bats and pangolins. He concluded that the combination of past coronavirus infection, and immunization with a messenger RNA vaccine, had resulted in a wider spectrum of protection than might have been expected.
“This is a significant study because it showed that pre-existing immunity to one coronavirus could help with the elicitation of cross-reactive antibodies when immunizing with a second coronavirus,” says Kevin Saunders, Director of Research at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute in North Carolina, which is developing a universal coronavirus vaccine. “It provides a strategy to perhaps broaden the immune response against coronaviruses.”
In the next few months, some of the first data is set to emerge looking at whether this kind of antibody response could be elicited by a single universal coronavirus vaccine. In April 2021, scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, launched a Phase I clinical trial of their vaccine, with a spokesman saying that it was successful, and the full results will be announced soon.
The Walter Reed researchers have already released preclinical data, testing the vaccine in non-human primates where it was found to have immunising capabilities against a range of Covid-19 variants as well as the original SARS virus. If the Phase I trial displays similar efficacy, a larger Phase II trial will begin later this year.
Two different approaches
Broadly speaking, scientists are taking two contrasting approaches to the task of finding a universal coronavirus vaccine. The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, VBI Vaccines – who plan to launch their own clinical trial in the summer – and the Duke Human Vaccine Institute – who are launching a Phase I trial in early 2023 – are using a soccer-ball shaped ferritin nanoparticle studded with different coronavirus protein fragments.
VBI Vaccines is looking to elicit broader immune responses by combining SARS, SARS-CoV-2 and MERS spike proteins on the same nanoparticle. Dave Anderson, chief scientific officer at VBI Vaccines, explains that the idea is that by showing the immune system these three spike proteins at the same time, it can help train it to identify and respond to subtle differences between coronavirus strains.
The Duke Human Vaccine Institute is utilising the same method, but rather than including the entire spike proteins from different coronaviruses, they are only including the receptor binding domain (RBD) fragment from each spike protein. “We designed our vaccine to focus the immune system on a site of vulnerability for the virus, which is the receptor binding domain,” says Saunders. “Since the RBD is small, arraying multiple RBDs on a nanoparticle is a straight-forward approach. The goal is to generate immunity to many different subgenuses of viruses so that there will be cross-reactivity with new or unknown coronaviruses.”
But the other strategy is to create a vaccine which contains regions of the viral protein structure which are conserved between all coronavirus strains. This is something which scientists have tried to do for a universal influenza vaccine, but it is thought to be more feasible for coronaviruses because they mutate at a slower rate and are more constrained in the ways that they can evolve.
DIOSynVax, a biotech based in Cambridge, United Kingdom, announced in a press release earlier this month that they are partnering with CEPI to use their computational predictive modelling techniques to identify common structures between all of the SARS coronaviruses which do not mutate, and thus present good vaccine targets.
Stephen Zeichner, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Virginia Medical Center, has created an early stage vaccine using the fusion peptide region – another part of the coronavirus spike protein that aids the virus’s entry into host cells – which so far appears to be highly conserved between all coronaviruses.
So far Zeichner has trialled this version of the vaccine in pigs, where it provided protection against a different coronavirus called porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, which he described as very promising as this virus is from a different family called alphacoronaviruses, while SARS-CoV-2 is a betacoronavirus.
“If a betacoronavirus fusion peptide vaccine designed from SARS-CoV-2 can protect pigs against clinical disease from an alphacoronavirus, then that suggests that an analogous vaccine would enable broad protection against many, many different coronaviruses,” he says.
The road ahead
But while some of the early stage results are promising, researchers are fully aware of the scale of the challenge ahead of them. Although CEPI have declared an aim of having a licensed universal coronavirus vaccine available by 2024-2025, Zeichner says that such timelines are ambitious in the extreme.
“I was incredibly impressed at the speed at which the mRNA coronavirus vaccines were developed for SARS-CoV-2,” he says. “That was faster than just about anybody anticipated. On the other hand, I think a universal coronavirus vaccine is more equivalent to the challenge of developing an HIV vaccine and we're 35 years into that effort without success. We know a lot more now than before, and maybe it will be easier than we think. But I think the route to a universal vaccine is harder than an individual vaccine, so I wouldn’t want to put money on a timeline prediction.”
The major challenge for scientists is essentially designing a vaccine for a future threat which is not even here yet. As such, there are no guidelines on what safety data would be required to license such a vaccine, and how researchers can demonstrate that it truly provides efficacy against all coronaviruses, even those which have not yet jumped to humans.
The teams working on this problem have already devised some ingenious ways of approaching the challenge. VBI Vaccines have taken the genetic sequences of different coronaviruses found in bats and pangolins, from publicly available databases, and inserted them into what virologists call a pseudotype virus – one which has been engineered so it does not have enough genetic material to replicate.
This has allowed them to test the neutralising antibodies that their vaccine produces against these coronaviruses in test tubes, under safe lab conditions. “We have literally just been ordering the sequences, and making synthetic viruses that we can use to test the antibody responses,” says Anderson.
However, some scientists feel that going straight to a universal coronavirus vaccine is likely to be too complex. Instead they say that we should aim for vaccines which are a little more specific. Pamela Bjorkman, a structural biologist at the California Institute of Technology, suggests that pan-coronavirus vaccines which protect against SARS-like betacoronaviruses such as SARS or SARS-CoV-2, or MERS-like betacoronaviruses, may be more realistic.
“I think a vaccine to protect against all coronaviruses is likely impossible since there are so many varieties,” she says. “Perhaps trying to narrow down the scope is advisable.”
But if the mission to develop a universal coronavirus vaccine does succeed, it will be one of the most remarkable feats in the annals of medical science. In January, US chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci urged for greater efforts to be devoted towards this goal, one which scientists feel would be the biological equivalent of the race to develop the first atomic bomb
“The development of an effective universal coronavirus vaccine would be equally groundbreaking, as it would have global applicability and utility,” says Saunders. “Coronaviruses have caused multiple deadly outbreaks, and it is likely that another outbreak will occur. Having a vaccine that prevents death from a future outbreak would be a tremendous achievement in global health.”
He agrees that it will require creativity on a remarkable scale: “The universal coronavirus vaccine will also require ingenuity and perseverance comparable to that needed for the Manhattan project.”
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Kids stressing you out? They could be protecting your health.
- A new device unlocks the heart's secrets
- Super-ager gene transplants
- Surgeons could 3D print your organs before operations
- A skull cap looks into the brain like an fMRI
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases by land and by sea - and how scientists are working on solutions.
On a warm summer day, forests, meadows, and riverbanks should be abuzz with insects—from butterflies to beetles and bees. But bugs aren’t as abundant as they used to be, and that’s not a plus for people and the planet, scientists say. The declining numbers of insects, coupled with climate change, can have devastating effects for people in more ways than one. “Insects have been around for a very long time and can live well without humans, but humans cannot live without insects and the many services they provide to us,” says Philipp Lehmann, a researcher in the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University in Sweden. Their decline is not just bad, Lehmann adds. “It’s devastating news for humans.
”Insects and other invertebrates are the most diverse organisms on the planet. They fill most niches in terrestrial and aquatic environments and drive ecosystem functions. Many insects are also economically vital because they pollinate crops that humans depend on for food, including cereals, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. A paper published in PNAS notes that insects alone are worth more than $70 billion a year to the U.S. economy. In places where pollinators like honeybees are in decline, farmers now buy them from rearing facilities at steep prices rather than relying on “Mother Nature.”
And because many insects serve as food for other species—bats, birds and freshwater fish—they’re an integral part of the ecosystem’s food chain. “If you like to eat good food, you should thank an insect,” says Scott Hoffman Black, an ecologist and executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “And if you like birds in your trees and fish in your streams, you should be concerned with insect conservation.”
Deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural spread have eaten away at large swaths of insect habitat. The increasingly poorly controlled use of insecticides, which harms unintended species, and the proliferation of invasive insect species that disrupt native ecosystems compound the problem.
“There is not a single reason why insects are in decline,” says Jessica L. Ware, associate curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and president of the Entomological Society of America. “There are over one million described insect species, occupying different niches and responding to environmental stressors in different ways.”
Jessica Ware, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, is using DNA methods to monitor insects.
In addition to habitat loss fueling the decline in insect populations, the other “major drivers” Ware identified are invasive species, climate change, pollution, and fluctuating levels of nitrogen, which play a major role in the lifecycle of plants, some of which serve as insect habitants and others as their food. “The causes of world insect population declines are, unfortunately, very easy to link to human activities,” Lehmann says.
Climate change will undoubtedly make the problem worse. “As temperatures start to rise, it can essentially make it too hot for some insects to survive,” says Emily McDermott, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Arkansas. “Conversely in other areas, it could potentially also allow other insects to expand their ranges.”
Without Pollinators Humans Will Starve
We may not think much of our planet’s getting warmer by only one degree Celsius, but it can spell catastrophe for many insects, plants, and animals, because it’s often accompanied by less rainfall. “Changes in precipitation patterns will have cascading consequences across the tree of life,” says David Wagner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. Insects, in particular, are “very vulnerable” because “they’re small and susceptible to drying.”
For instance, droughts have put the monarch butterfly at risk of being unable to find nectar to “recharge its engine” as it migrates from Canada and New England to Mexico for winter, where it enters a hibernation state until it journeys back in the spring. “The monarch is an iconic and a much-loved insect,” whose migration “is imperiled by climate change,” Wagner says.
Warming and drying trends in the Western United States are perhaps having an even more severe impact on insects than in the eastern region. As a result, “we are seeing fewer individual butterflies per year,” says Matt Forister, a professor of insect ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno.
There are hundreds of butterfly species in the United States and thousands in the world. They are pollinators and can serve as good indicators of other species’ health. “Although butterflies are only one group among many important pollinators, in general we assume that what’s bad for butterflies is probably bad for other insects,” says Forister, whose research focuses on butterflies. Climate change and habitat destruction are wreaking havoc on butterflies as well as plants, leading to a further indirect effect on caterpillars and butterflies.
Different insect species have different levels of sensitivity to environmental changes. For example, one-half of the bumblebee species in the United States are showing declines, whereas the other half are not, says Christina Grozinger, a professor of entomology at the Pennsylvania State University. Some species of bumble bees are even increasing in their range, seemingly resilient to environmental changes. But other pollinators are dwindling to the point that farmers have to buy from the rearing facilities, which is the case for the California almond industry. “This is a massive cost to the farmer, which could be provided for free, in case the local habitats supported these pollinators,” Lehmann says.
For bees and other insects, climate change can harm the plants they depend on for survival or have a negative impact on the insects directly. Overly rainy and hot conditions may limit flowering in plants or reduce the ability of a pollinator to forage and feed, which then decreases their reproductive success, resulting in dwindling populations, Grozinger explains.
“Nutritional deprivation can also make pollinators more sensitive to viruses and parasites and therefore cause disease spread,” she says. “There are many ways that climate change can reduce our pollinator populations and make it more difficult to grow the many fruit, vegetable and nut crops that depend on pollinators.”
Disease-Causing Insects Can Bring More Outbreaks
While some much-needed insects are declining, certain disease-causing species may be spreading and proliferating, which is another reason for human concern. Many mosquito types spread malaria, Zika virus, West Nile virus, and a brain infection called equine encephalitis, along with other diseases as well as heartworms in dogs, says Michael Sabourin, president of the Vermont Entomological Society. An animal health specialist for the state, Sabourin conducts vector surveys that identify ticks and mosquitoes.
Scientists refer to disease-carrying insects as vector species and, while there’s a limited number of them, many of these infections can be deadly. Fleas were a well-known vector for the bubonic plague, while kissing bugs are a vector for Chagas disease, a potentially life-threatening parasitic illness in humans, dogs, and other mammals, Sabourin says.
As the planet heats up, some of the creepy crawlers are able to survive milder winters or move up north. Warmer temperatures and a shorter snow season have spawned an increasing abundance of ticks in Maine, including the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), known to transmit Lyme disease, says Sean Birkel, an assistant professor in the Climate Change Institute and Cooperative Extension at the University of Maine.
Coupled with more frequent and heavier precipitation, rising temperatures bring a longer warm season that can also lead to a longer period of mosquito activity. “While other factors may be at play, climate change affects important underlying conditions that can, in turn, facilitate the spread of vector-borne disease,” Birkel says.
For example, if mosquitoes are finding fewer of their preferred food sources, they may bite humans more. Both male and female mosquitoes feed on sugar as part of their normal behavior, but if they aren’t eating their fill, they may become more bloodthirsty. One recent paper found that sugar-deprived Anopheles gambiae females go for larger blood meals to stay in good health and lay eggs. “More blood meals equals more chances to pick up and transmit a pathogen,” McDermott says, He adds that climate change could reduce the number of available plants to feed on. And while most mosquitoes are “generalist sugar-feeders” meaning that they will likely find alternatives, losing their favorite plants can make them hungrier for blood
Similar to the effect of losing plants, mosquitoes may get turned onto people if they lose their favorite animal species. For example, some studies found that Culex pipiens mosquitoes that transmit the West Nile virus feed primarily on birds in summer. But that changes in the fall, at least in some places. Because there are fewer birds around, C. pipiens switch to mammals, including humans. And if some disease-carrying insect species proliferate or increase their ranges, that increases chances for human infection, says McDermott. “A larger concern is that climate change could increase vector population sizes, making it more likely that people or animals would be bitten by an infected insect.”
Science Can Help Bring Back the Buzz
To help friendly insects thrive and keep the foes in check, scientists need better ways of trapping, counting, and monitoring insects. It’s not an easy job, but artificial intelligence and molecular methods can help. Ware’s lab uses various environmental DNA methods to monitor freshwater habitats. Molecular technologies hold much promise. The so-called DNA barcodes, in which species are identified using a short string of their genes, can now be used to identify birds, bees, moths and other creatures, and should be used on a larger scale, says Wagner, the University of Connecticut professor. “One day, something akin to Star Trek’s tricorder will soon be on sale down at the local science store.”
Scientists are also deploying artificial intelligence, or AI, to identify insects in agricultural systems and north latitudes where there are fewer bugs, Wagner says. For instance, some automated traps already use the wingbeat frequencies of mosquitoes to distinguish the harmless ones from the disease-carriers. But new technology and software are needed to further expand detection based on vision, sound, and odors.
“Because of their ubiquity, enormity of numbers, and seemingly boundless diversity, we desperately need to develop molecular and AI technologies that will allow us to automate sampling and identification,” says Wagner. “That would accelerate our ability to track insect populations, alert us to the presence of new disease vectors, exotic pest introductions, and unexpected declines.”